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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Southeast Sojourn

It’s the 30th of August as I write this, and we are sitting on the hook in Egg Harbor, Coronation Island, just southwest of the aptly-named Cape Decision. We are waiting to make the jump offshore for the trip down to the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Port Townsend, having had an aborted and somewhat comic (in retrospect) attempt to get started yesterday.

We ended up motoring all the way from Haines to Port Alexander, 180 miles down the massive fjord that is first known as Lynn Canal, then as Chatham Strait. The winds were light or contrary the whole way. I’m ready to sail again, as sailing brings crew and ship alive in a way that simple motoring never will. But there were compensations to the days of motoring, notably the chance for hours and hours of reading and occasional games of crib from behind the wheel.

Here’s a shot of the late-night solar panel installation in Haines, the night before our departure. I was wiring until 1 AM (0100 in our new lexicon) and then updating the blog and downloading tidal data until 0300.

A big milestone from Haines that I failed to mention in earlier posts was Eli’s first birthday, which we celebrated with Kelly, on the big day, August 5th. Alisa produced our first-ever cake from the ship’s oven for the event.

Two days south of Haines we came to Funter Bay, a good anchorage surrounded by a little cluster of recreational cabins. We spent the night at the state dock and listened to the conversation of the Juneau people whose sportfishing boats were tied up around us. Funter Bay was the site of an internment camp for Aleuts from St. Paul Island (in the Pribilof Islands) during WWII. The community was evacuated with two days notice and held captive in Funter Bay without adequate food, heating, clothing, sanitation or medical care. A short walk from the dock is the graveyard from that time. Lots of graves for the tiny size of the community of prisoners. Lots of them from 1943. All dug under the trees, in a foreign land for people whose entire world and history lies in the treeless islands of the Bering Sea.

The next day took us to the dock at Tenakee Springs, a beautiful, historic little settlement, a long double row of houses cheek by jowl on the glorified 4-wheeler trailer that serves as the main street, all set along the shores of Tenakee Inlet (another humbly named, mighty fjord), just north of Peril Strait. On our first walk through town, at seven PM (1900…) we saw no people about and only one full-sized vehicle, the old pickup operated by the city. Tenakee is famous as far away as Juneau and Sitka for the public bath house fed by water from the warm springs. Alternate men’s and women’s hours are posted on the door. It was women’s hours when we walked through town in the evening, so Alisa peeked in for a reccee. “No way I’m taking a bath in there!” she said. “There’s a big cement tank in the middle and it’s deep and creepy.”

We had heard that Tenakee had largely become a retirement community, and we suspected that many of the retirees were from somewhere else, based on the abundance of low-hanging ripe blueberries along the main drag. No group of Alaskan grandmothers would leave blueberries in such an under-utilized state. Glen confirmed that the town was largely the home of retirees, many from Outside, and that things get pretty quiet in the winter. Alisa and I agreed that we would be delighted to spend the summers of our Autumn there, and the five acres of waterfront that the city of Tenakee Springs was auctioning off, minimum bid one hundred thousand dollars, was the subject of much “what-if” discussion for the next day or two on board.

Eli just liked the berries.

Our friend Jamie, who has been all over Southeast in his field work on Steller sea lions, had told us that Baranof Warm Springs was not to be missed, and we were happy to see that Warm Springs Bay was a short day south from Tenakee. We began motoring down the east shore of Baranof Island, which is full of the kind of terrain that you see in this photo.

There was, happily, room at the state dock when we pulled in. Here’s Pelagic tied up in front of the Republic, one of the storied fleet of halibut schooners that are the romantic heart and soul of Alaskan commercial fishing. The crew of the Republic takes the waters at Baranof every year after their longline season is finished. Salty fellows, those Republics. Baranof, by the way, is the community, Warm Springs Bay the locale.

Baranof got something like 34 feet of snow last year – a modern-era record. Catastrophic results for the foundations of the cabins in the background.

Below are Eli and self on the way to take the waters, with more or less the whole of Baranof in the background. Note the great boardwalk, which runs all the way to the hot springs and Baranof Lake beyond – feels like a third of a mile or so. Note also the waterfall contributing to the situation of idyllic beauty.

After a brisk walk up the boardwalk we came to this payoff – the hotsprings piped into three consecutive pools – super-hot, hot, and big enough for one person, sequentially – that overlook the rushing torrent that joins Baranof Lake to the waterfalls below. Go ahead, try to beat this for tranquility, natural beauty and northern-style outdoor nudity and decadence. I will bet that you cannot.

The water was too hot for el squirto, so he had to watch as Alisa and I took turns soaking.

After the soak we continued up to the lake, a sub-alpine oligotrophic vision, complete (and apparently replete) with cutthroat trout lazily rising to take bugs from the mirrored surface.

And finally, for the piece of resistance, Baranof features three public baths fed by the hot springs and overlooking the harbor. One of them is this handmade wooden beauty from Japan.

Eli and I took a dip in one of the galvanized versions.

And then we bid a hearty fare well to Baranof… so long, we hardly knew ye!

We met Joe and April Smith when they tied up in Warm Springs Bay on board the Kesia Dawn with baby Ocean and pit bull Monkey on board. Joe and April cruised to Baja and Hawaii on their 34 foot steel gaff-rigged schooner, and we hit it off talking about boats and babies, and the salty-stinky intersection of those two worlds. Joe told me that it was great we were cruising with a baby, and April said to Alisa, “You’re a brave woman.” Joe grew up in Port Alexander, at the southern tip of Baranof Island, and the Kesia Dawn made the trip down from Warm Springs Bay on the same day we did.

On the way we passed yet more spectacular Baranof Island terrain. This brief visit really opened our eyes to Southeast Alaska. I hope we’re lucky enough to spend more time here in years to come.

Port Alexander is small enough that Alisa and I had never heard of it before this visit. It sits inside a tiny natural harbor that is reached through a narrow cut in the kelp and rocks that guard it from the outside. The town used to make its lifeblood on the Columbia River run of king salmon, and was bigger than Sitka until the Columbia was damned and the run failed. The town languished until the 1970s, when land grants were available and a new generation was attracted to this incredible spot. There’s a resident commercial troll fleet and a few small lodges, and some very friendly people.

Alisa and I have been looking forward to the day when we would start to meet cruisers in general, and our people among the cruising fraternity specifically. Joe and April, and Keill and Elizabeth on Shambala, from Sydney, Australia, who we met in Haines, were the first two cruising couples who we’ve met on the trip. Common experience and outlook made it very easy to talk to these people, and A. and I enjoyed their quick friendship. After the reams of useless advice that I’ve gotten from people, ashore and on boats, I found that Keill and Joe could make valuable suggestions that I could actually learn from.

Here’s team Smith.

We sat in P.A. for three days, two sunny and one pouring, all with a lovely north wind that might have blown us on our way. However, the forecast for the offshore area we planned to transit on the beginning of our hop to Port Townsend, Washington was consistently for southeast winds of 25 to 35 knots, which we generally wanted nothing to do with. In Warm Springs Bay we had thought of visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands on the way south, but talking with Joe strengthened our sense that the trip from Washington down to San Diego is the big hurdle that we have before us, and that the season for that trip is rapidly waning.

So now we’re planning a straight shot to P.T. While we were waiting in P.A. our log devolved into long lists of forecasted wind strengths as we transcribed each update from the weather service. Favorable winds were apparently not forthcoming, so we settled for waiting for light contrary weather and being a little nervous about the passage. Light weather finally came yesterday, and we made our run out of P.A. to the entrance of Chatham Strait and onto the ocean. We motored first into a swell, then into a steep swell, then into a confused swell. I went down to plot our position and got seasick. Alisa went forward to change a stinky diaper and got seasick. In the process of making sail I managed to wrap the main halyard around the radar dome, and I could not manage to unwrap it, even after a misguided attempt that involved lead fishing weights and a tag line, and which ended in the demise of our steaming light. Rather than go up the mast at sea, we decided that it was best to return to land and anchor up. So we ran back here to Egg Harbor, part of the way sailing a beam reach under genoa only on the tail-end of the lovely northerly breeze. By this time it was sunny and the ocean was flat and I was in a foul mood to be heading back to land. We were heading for Cape Decision and Decision Pass, which gives on to Sumner Strait and then Clarence Strait, which would take us in protected waters to Ketchikan and Metlakatla and southernmost Southeast Alaska. We talked about taking those inside waters with the hope that we would find better offshore weather at the other end. But a reading of the Coast Pilot revealed a story of tidal currents and anchorages with tricky entrances. We lack the large-scale charts needed for navigating those anchorages, so decided to stick with our offshore plan. Cape Decision, indeed.

The updated forecast was for 25 knots southeast, which meant our short window was closing. The Coast Pilot warns of williwaws in Egg Harbor with southeast weather, so we anchored proper, laying out our 35 pound CQR made fast to the 45 pound CQR with two fathoms of 5/16” triple-B chain, the whole affair at the end of our full 240 feet of 3/8” triple-B in 35 to 45 feet of water, depending on the tide.

After messing around with all that ground tackle I got ready to go up the mast belayed on the topping lift, and in the process found that I could retrieve the halyard with a little creative pulling on the topping lift. So we needn’t of returned to land to free the halyard. We reassured ourselves that we would have run into the southeasterly if we had kept going. I went up the mast anyway to check on the steaming light (totaled) and to reassure myself that I at least didn’t manage to bugger up the radar dome.

And so here we sit, the next day, letting the southeasterly blow through. The wind is singing in the rigging. Violent rain spells crystalline sunshine. When the wind gusts off the mountains around us we blow in circles around the anchor, but with all that gear out we’re happy in the knowledge that we won’t drag a foot. We’ve spent a number of days like this on the barky in deserted Alaskan anchorages, sailing circles around the anchor in the rain, and there is a good chance that this will be our last Alaskan anchorage for a few years to come.

Elias now has five words that are apparent to our ears, if not to a stranger’s: dog, ball, book, momma and dadda. He also has a beautiful, rolling personal vocabulary that is trill- and vowel-rich, like the singing of a stream, that he mutters and shouts throughout the happier hours of his day. I am sorry that those sounds have no place in English, and will soon disappear. To Alisa’s occasional exasperation Elias has also mastered the sign for milk, which he uses demandingly and with no regards for the patience of his audience. Last night he had a screaming fit from 0330 until God knows when, 0430 or 0500. Cause unknown. I used language that no one-year-old should have to hear, to no benefit. Alisa took over for me after a fruitless forty five minutes of trying to get him to sleep and I raided the chart table for ear plugs. There is nowhere to hide from a screaming baby on a 37 foot sailboat. I have had few second thoughts about our trip, but I had one then. It took the form of a nearly sensuous vision of fitting the key into the ignition of my happy green Toyota pickup in the driveway of our house and driving away up the hill. Such easy escape, compared with what seemed like a mad vision of traveling down the coast of North America with a sub-toddler in tow. How alone we are, how trapped within the world of this dream come mysteriously to life! How distant our past life on land, how impossible to return!

Our quiet day on the hook has renewed my faith. Alisa has baked bread and fixed the thermocouple on the oven. I have written. The radio interface for the ipod that Alisa got me for my birthday has provided us with a varied and entertaining soundtrack. We have both played with Eli, changed his diapers and put him down for his nap. And now it is time to listen for the updated forecast. The coming weeks will see our adventure really begin to unfold, as we have two passages ahead of us that will take us all the way to San Diego or even Ensenada, Mexico, thirty degrees of latitude south of our northernmost point in Prince William Sound. It begins to feel like this Alaskan cruise has been a warm-up trip through the known or at least the familiar. The true adventure of distant shores and different nations is about to unfold. How interesting to find that when you do grab the brass ring of a dream and hold onto it long enough to leave everything else behind, you find a normal kind of life waiting for you on the other side. A normal kind of life, but not the life you would have led without the dream.

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